Mystery, Murder, and the Macabre in the Archives!



Tombstone Epitaph, Nov. 1921

It was a dark and stormy evening in the small border town of Nogales, Sonora, Mexico; the year was 1921. As the Tombstone Epitaph reported, a letter signed by the “Black Hand” was delivered to a local saloon-keeper, who, rather than follow the instructions of the extortion letter, decided to arm himself and let nature take its course. This is just one of many mystery stories from the Wild West that you can find in archival collections.

There is much to explore in Special Collections, as my graduate assistant colleagues and I have found out lately. If you want to investigate reports of mystery, murder, and the macabre,  you have come to the best place! However, not all of the mysteries are on paper. Some of the objects that are donated to the archives are often more than a little mysterious and sometimes downright creepy!


Boot Hill, Tombstone, AZ


Trick-or-treaters, circa 1920s




The creaking of the shelves and the shimmer of light off the plastic covering the portraits hanging in a far corner can sometimes get your heart racing as you move through silent rows of shelves stacked with boxes with secrets concealed within. Of course, the average citizen doesn’t get to just wander around the basement of the archives. If you truly want to know more about the secrets within Special Collections, come visit us, if you dare.black_hand_print




What’s New? What’s Old

The latest news from my corner of the Special Collections forest involves conspiracies, bullets, and subterfuge.

I received a welcome addition to my responsibilities last week when our rare books archivist, Roger Myers, gave me six boxes of books to look up. Not just any books, these have to do with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, ranging from a few serious reports to a lot of wild conspiracies. Some books also deal with Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the Chappaquiddick incident. My job has been to find out whether we already own each book or whether it would be a new addition to our collection on items relating to JFK.

img_5138These books were donated to Special Collections from the university’s history department who obtained these materials a few years ago by a JFK enthusiast. Recently, the department decided they did not have the space to keep them, so they passed them on to us. We agreed to look at them to see if there are any potential gems that we want to keep.

Right now I’m a little overwhelmed by all of the contrasting theories. No one is above suspicion, as there are books promising details on how and/or why the CIA, FBI, Mafia, Cubans, Soviets, and various other groups organized this murder. One book includes over twenty different conspiracy theories. I never realized how much literature is out there about JFK and his assassination. Then again, I never realized a lot of things until I began working at Special Collections, where I learn something new every day.

Here’s to all of us learning something new today.



Arizona Archives Alliance Symposium

This past Friday, all three of us graduate assistants hopped into Susan’s car at 7AM to go to the Arizona Archives Alliance annual symposium, which was being hosted at the Tempe History Museum this year. The symposium centered around the question, “What’s my job again?” and learning how to manage changes to archivists’ roles, their job titles, and their duties, especially as their careers progress.

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Posing with a spooky bank teller

The first speaker, Erin O’Meara, is the Head of the Office of Digital Innovation and Stewardship (ODIS) at the University of Arizona Libraries. She emphasized the importance of making time for innovation and new ideas while being considerate of the professional and emotional needs of colleagues and staff members. O’Meara stressed that working with other units on campus to build on each other’s strengths is key to making work manageable and being able to focus on new projects. The second speaker was Chrystal Carpenter, University Archivist at Elon University, who spoke about navigating change management. Carpenter demonstrated that in order to effectively work with change, organizations must involve all members in creating shared values and visions for the organization that everyone can agree on. These values are used to direct the organization, but also to create a sense of community and belonging and to help others stay accountable to those values.

After the presentations, the group broke for lunch, and afterwards, Jonathan Pringle of Northern Arizona University’s Cline Library led an open forum and members were able to speak in a very supportive space about the challenges and successes we had experienced at our institutions. One institution in particular had faced many challenges, which negatively affected morale among those archivists, but due to the open and supportive nature of the forum, they were able to talk their issues and brainstorm ideas for progress with other members of the alliance.

As a student, some of the information presented at the AAA Symposium went right over my head, but much of what I heard I recognized from my classes, which was very exciting and encouraging. The speakers’ comments on redefining yourself and making career changes was inspiring, and I feel like I learned a lot from the other librarians and archivists that attended the meeting. This was only my first library conference, but I can’t wait to attend more and continue getting involved in the field.

The Art of Archiving

img_6407My name is Susan Mergenthal, and I am in my second year as a graduate student in the Master of Library and Information Science program at the University of Arizona.  I moved to Tucson from Anchorage, Alaska after 23 years as a public school librarian.  I originally thought I would pursue my second career in public librarianship; however, during my first semester of graduate school I took Introduction to Archives from Dr. Jennifer Jenkins, and suddenly it became very clear to me that I am an archivist at heart!  I am passionate about preservation of the past for the future, and my love of history, family genealogy, old photos and memorabilia, antiquities–especially rare books has set me on a new path that I am excited to follow wherever it may lead me.

Last year I worked as a volunteer intern at the Tucson Botanical Gardens (TBG) in their library of rare and unusual botanical books. A majority of the book collection was donated by the founder of the first TBG, along with all of his papers. I first came into contact with University of Arizona Libraries Special Collections to ask if they would be interested in archiving the Yocum papers. A few months later, here I am, a graduate assistant at Special Collections!


Riggs family Bible chronicling  family births and deaths


Brannick and Mary Riggs circa 1880 – 1890s






My first assignment has been to process a collection of papers donated by the family of  John C. Riggs, a pioneer rancher from southeastern Arizona, 1874-1942. During the first few weeks of September I worked on surveying the collection, took notes on what the collection contains photos, biographical histories of family members, correspondence, receipts, homestead deeds, leases, etc., and devised a processing plan. I am now arranging the materials in folders and boxes, and hope to be working on the finding aid by next week.  Organizing information is an art form!


Sorting receipts–painful!